By Janis Fontaine
The issues football coach T.J. Jackson deals with at Delray Beach’s Atlantic High School go beyond football and beyond the field. Food insecurity, drug abuse, mental illness, lack of medical care and teenage pregnancy plague a significant part of the local population, and many of Atlantic’s football players live this reality.
The chasm that separates Jackson’s players from their affluent neighbors is wider than the Intracoastal Waterway that separates them geographically.
Last month, the two groups came together when men and women from Ocean Ridge, Gulf Stream, Boca Raton and Delray Beach slipped navy blue Ralph Lauren blazers onto the muscular shoulders of 32 football players before a signing day ceremony celebrating a handful of seniors who had earned scholarships for college or for a year at McDougle Preparatory Institute in Deerfield Beach.
The blazers, which retail for about $400, were donated in part by Macy’s, but the balance (about $100 per jacket) came from donors in the community, rounded up by Janie Souaid of Gulf Stream, an energetic advocate for and kind-hearted mentor to the young men.
Souaid said it took about six hours to raise the $3,200 she needed to pay the balance owed. She said, at first, the people she called couldn’t understand why the students’ families failed to come up with the difference. “One of the players was homeless, and I told them this is a true Blind Side story,” a reference to the 2009 film The Blind Side.
When she began to call around again and ask for money to embroider the students’ initials inside in gold thread, her husband, Bob, who had weighed in on the blazers’ style and fabric, said he’d pony up the cash if she “would stop asking people for money.”
He was joking and it’s a good thing, because Souaid is not finished asking for money to help them.
Souaid is a motivational speaker and author, and Jackson invited her to speak to his players last year about hard work and excellence. Souaid shared her knowledge with the 150 freshman, JV and varsity players who made up the football program. “I have fallen in love with this team,” she said.
At first the players were skeptical, but Souaid, 58, has become someone kids can really talk to. A mother to two grown children, Souaid was an athlete in her youth — she excelled at water polo — and still loves fitness, exercise and eating right. Her background and fitness level give her credibility with the players, whom she calls “gentlemen.”
Coach sets behavior standards
The 32 seniors — the football program has a 100 percent graduation rate — showed up early to mingle with the donors on signing day. Polite, soft-spoken, but making eye contact, they shook hands and behaved respectfully and responsibly, Jackson’s well-known standards for behavior.
Player Jose Bush said, “It’s a gift some people have to connect with other people, and Coach has it.”
Jackson gets weekly academic progress reports (A’s and B’s are OK, C’s are not), and players must make the grade if they want to see any time on the field, where Atlantic was unbeaten during the regular season. The teachers are behind him.
Principal Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo calls Jackson her right-hand man.
“I couldn’t do it without him,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t ask me what he can do to help.”
As much as he has instilled unity and pride in the team, Jackson has brought unity and pride to the school’s 2,300 students. But it hasn’t been easy.
Jackson helped the team shoulder a terrible loss last year when a popular player was killed in a dirt bike accident.
Marc’Allen Derac was a beloved leader and a shoo-in for a scholarship. Tight end Kamareon Williams dedicated signing day to Marc’Allen, he said, because everyone knew Marc’Allen would have signed, maybe with one of the big dogs: Miami, Florida or Florida State.
Kamareon announced his commitment to Florida International University with a touch of sadness.
It’s not the first time Jackson has lost a player, someone he loved, and it likely won’t be the last. But he encourages students to keep forging forward, being grateful, and doing the right thing.
Jackson knows from experience that education will last after football ends. A ticket to the NFL or a full ride to a Division I school is a great dream, and one worth pursuing, but not a reality for most of his players.
But a college scholarship and a bachelor’s degree? That is within their grasp. This year, thanks to tutoring, hard work and dedication, 85 percent of the team made the honor roll.
Quarterback Kalani Ilimaleota’s mom and sister came to see him sign his letter with St. Thomas University. Taking the stage in his pressed white shirt and carved wood necklace, he could have just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren commercial. Kalani’s words, “Thank God for my family,” were echoed by his mother’s: “Thank God for Coach T.J.”
Kalani learned discipline and independence from Jackson, but the coach says he doesn’t do it alone. He says his assistant coaches, the athletic department, the administration, teachers and even the food service folks all stand as role models.
Neighborhood merchants also step up, Souaid says. Walmart donates Muscle Milk, a high-protein supplement, and the store has hired a handful of players who need work. Carrabba’s provides a hearty game-day meal for the team each week.
“People want to help,” Souaid said, “but they don’t know what to do.” She’s happy to tell them.
The importance of giving back
Signing day was emotional for both the donors and the students.
Dr. Patti Thrower of Ocean Ridge came to help her player into his jacket.
“It made my heart sing,” she said. “There’s a true joy that comes from giving that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s important to give back, not just with money, but by mentoring these kids.”
Thrower, who grew up poor in New Jersey, cried as she recalled her own struggles putting herself through college in Pennsylvania, then dental school.
“I’m proof that it can happen, that it is attainable: college, a career, a great future,” she said.
Through their own hard work and dedication with support from Jackson and the school, the young men now have skills, mental toughness, a winning attitude, discipline and maturity.
And thanks to Janie Souaid and their neighbors to the east, they’re dressed to succeed. Ú